Welcome! Today we are going to discuss the American Chestnut (Castanea dentata) which is part of the Beech family. The American Chestnut tree was an important member of the eastern forest found in the United States. A wide variety of wildlife including the extinct Passenger Pigeon fed on its chestnuts. American Chestnuts began to die off in 1904 due to imported Chestnut Blight via infected Chinese Chestnut Trees.
The blight is a fungus dispersed by spores in the air, raindrops and animals. It was first noticed in NYC. Check out the book American Chestnut : The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree for more information on how this tree may be brought back to life and become the dominant species of the Eastern Forest once more.
American Chestnut once comprised as much as 25% of the forest canopy prior to the blight. Today the tree is part of the understory as a sprout. Oak and Hickory trees have replaced the once dominant Chestnut in the canopy. Where a mature American Chestnut Tree once reached 100 feet before the blight struck, today the sprout only grows to maybe 15- 20 feet or so before the blight kills it. We see these sprouts because the blight affects the trunk of the tree and not the roots.
Sprouts of American Chestnut can be found in moist uplands. Farmers once considered the American Chestnut to be a weed tree as it grew fast and often where it wasn’t wanted. There are some mature American Chestnuts that settlers took with them out west far out of their native range and thus far have not been inflicted with the blight.
The leaves of the American Chestnut are similar to the American Beech but are longer. Check out this resource from the American Chestnut Foundation on how to properly identify American Chestnut — > American Chestnut Field Guide
At this point you may be thinking, “this article is rubbish! I get chestnuts all the time from the grocery store“. And here is my gotcha moment! Those chestnuts are either of a European or Asiatic variety. It is said that the taste of the American Chestnut was far more sweeter than any other. A tree that people sometimes confuse for the American Chestnut is the non-native Horse-Chestnut Tree (Aesculus hippocastanum) whose nuts are toxic.
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